On Tuesday, Kansas City voters should end 18 months of controversy by endorsing the decision to rename The Paseo for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
To accomplish that, though, voters must proceed with caution in filling out what is a somewhat counterintuitive ballot. To keep the newly renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in place, Kansas Citians need to vote “no” on Question 5 on the city ballot.
Voting “yes” would mean taking down the King street signs and restoring The Paseo name — an outcome that would reflect poorly on our city.
Everyone in this debate acknowledges Kansas City’s indefensible tardiness in officially honoring the civil rights icon. For far too long, Kansas City has been one of the largest American cities without a street named for King. The delay has been unfortunate, and uncomfortable.
In 2018, city activists and several East Side ministers said they wanted to rectify the mistake by renaming The Paseo for King. The boulevard, they said, was less tarnished than many other East Side thoroughfares, making it the best place to invoke King’s memory.
The group said it planned to gather petition signatures to force a vote on the idea.
Unfortunately, and to their discredit, the ministers and activists gave little consideration to people actually living on the street, many of whom objected to the name change. That inattention soon proved problematic.
Former Mayor Sly James formed a task force to suggest alternatives to The Paseo. None excited the public. The unenthusiastic response, coupled with the ministers’ failure to follow through with the petition process, allowed momentum for honoring King to stall.
But public pressure — and, to be honest, this year’s City Council and mayoral elections — brought the idea back to life. In January, by an 8-4 vote, the City Council approved renaming the street. Signs were quickly installed.
Opponents, including those who live on the street, weren’t finished, though. They gathered petition signatures of their own, which put the matter on Tuesday’s ballot, which brings us to where we are today.
This issue was mishandled from the start. Ignoring the wishes of the street’s residents, who didn’t ask for this controversy, was wrong. Kansas Citians should sympathize with hundreds of residents whose lives have been altered by this change.
Kansas City’s long history of disrupting the lives of African Americans, including those who lived where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard now runs, must also be noted.
Yet procedural mistakes should not distract voters from the core issues, which haven’t changed: Should Kansas City name a major street for King? If so, is the former Paseo that street?
The clear answer is yes on both counts. More than 50 years after his death, King remains a singular beacon of hope and inclusion for disadvantaged communities. Kansas City’s inaction and apparent lack of interest in King’s legacy are a stain that should be removed.
And the street previously known as The Paseo remains at the center of Kansas City’s urban experience. Named for King, it can be more: The city should step up efforts to rebuild and enhance the roadway, growing property values for all who live there. Residents on the street who must reset their financial accounts and personal records should expect no less.
Taking King’s name off the street, on the other hand, would be self-inflicted wound for this city, telegraphing to the rest of the nation that Kansas City doesn’t value King’s memory or his message. Renaming The Paseo doesn’t fix all that ails the city, of course — race relations remain strained in our community, no matter what names are on the signs — but continuing the controversy will only deepen wounds that need to heal.
The campaign has been relatively quiet and civil. For that, both sides deserve credit.
But voters should understand: If The Paseo is “saved” at the polls on Tuesday, pressure to rename a different street for King will grow. Task forces will meet. Petitions will be circulated. Neighbors will argue with neighbors. Kansas City will be back in this place, with the same disagreements, a year or two from now.
But endorsing the name change with a “no” vote gives Kansas City a chance to move past this argument and focus on other urgent issues: housing, safety, education, opportunity.
We’re pretty sure Martin Luther King Jr. would want us to spend more of our time on those concerns, and less on arguing about his name on a street. The best way to do that is to vote “no” on Question 5, and preserve the newly christened Dr. Martin Luther Jr. Boulevard.